Going into halftime, the Laguna Blanca boys basketball team could not find its rhythm out on the court.
Still, solid play from Christian Branch and Devin Hernandez helped the Owls build a three-point halftime lead.
And, in the second half, Laguna Blanca found its pace and stuck to it, opening the half on an 11-0 run to eventually defeat Shandon School, 56-38, in the CIF-SS Div. 5A Wild Card game at home.
“We knew the only reason they were still in the game is because we were letting them in the game, so second half we used our half-court trap and it all started with our defense. That helped us pull away,” Branch said.
The Owls forced 13 turnovers in the second half en rout to outscoring their opponents, 36-21 over the final 16 minutes.
Hernandez was also fantastic in the final two quarters for the Owls, scoring 16 of his 22 points while also collecting seven of his 11 boards.
“To be honest, I just wanted the grind and do everything I can for my boys. You know, I’m just trying to get to the next nice game,” Hernandez said after being asked about his mindset in the second half.
“I would say I was just putting some more energy out there and just trying my best and it paid off.”
Branch chipped in 12 points while also being a key driving force on both ends of the floor, pocketing four steals and dishing out eight assists.
Branch was also just happy that Laguna Blanca was able to win its first CIF game in four years.
“It’s huge for all of us. We’ve been working hard every year and it’s been a (heck) of an experience, just working every day, and so it means a lot to get this one,” Branch said.
Leading 20-17 at the break, Laguna Blanca started the third period with a basket from Hernandez, followed by another lay-in from Finn Walker.
A pair of threes, one by Hernandez and the other from Branch, with another Walker jumper sandwiched in between suddenly put the Owls in front 31-17.
Walker was another Owl who had a good night in front of his home crowd. The junior scored 11 points, collected six boards, totaled three steals and three blocks.
His ability to knock down shots from the elbow was key as it made Shandon’s defense pay for focusing all its attention on Hernandez.
“The key to this thing was Finn. We put Finn in the middle of the lane and he was wide open and he was able to knock down some big shots for us,” Laguna Blanca coach Sal Rodriguez said.
The Outlaws did not go down easy, however.
Trailing by 11 late in the quarter, a pair of easy layups inside brought Shandon back within seven with under a minute to play in the third quarter.
Junior Alex Zavala, who scored a team-high 12 points, banked in a three as the buzzer sounded to bring the Outlaws within four to start the fourth period.
Over the final eight minutes, however, the Owls silenced their opponents. A pair of treys to start the final frame put Laguna Blanca back in front by 10.
Then, any time the Outlaws would cut the lead to eight, Walker would contribute a jumper from inside the arc to keep the lead stretched.
After a make by Walker, the Owls’ Foster Smith knocked home a 3-pointer with 2:27 left, putting his team in front 50-37, to seal the victory and send his team to the first round of the CIF 5A playoffs.
With the win, Laguna Blanca will move on to face Nordhoff, which defeated Laguna earlier this season, 73-25.
“(At the beginning of) the year we started off really bad, but I told the kids and the parents though, you know, but by the end of the season, by February, we will be a different team. My whole point is just to improve,” Rodriguez said.
“It’s unfortunate we are playing a first-place, tough team in Nordhoff, but we are a different team and I am looking forward to it.
“We have got to rebound and press their shooters, but most importantly, we have to handle the press and get out of it, or else it is going to be a long night.”